When I got home this past Saturday, I was about as wiped out as I’ve ever been. Sunday, Mother’s Day 2014, passed by in a blur of fatigue and brewery visits and a tad too much beer and latent worry. Monday morning, I drove over to my empty office, bright and early, still feeling vague and disconnected, and discovered a box from New York in my chair. I opened it and found three bottles of Laphroaig Scotch…the 10 Year Old, 18 Year Old, and their special Quarter Cask.
And I sat down at my desk, there in the empty office, and cried.
Laphroaig, for me, is like an old, old friend, one you see infrequently but hold dear, so that every fleeting memory of them brings a smile. I didn’t cry because I found those three gorgeous whiskeys in that box. I cried because I had just returned from a week-long trip to Virginia, to the Richmond suburbs, to see my brother and sister-in-law…and my Mother…who was dying.
Several times during that week, I could have used a wee dram of Laphroaig. Would have found some relief and solace there. It was agonizing seeing the person whose effect upon whomever and whatever I’ve turned out to be – good, bad, or ugly – was as approximately as profound as the pull of a neutron star, reduced to a mere fraction of herself. I sometimes described my Mother as a battleship; 6″ of steel plate, impervious, immovable, and as formidable as Mount Everest. In truth, that was my silly little poetic hyperbole. What she actually was was a wildly intelligent, complicated, talented girl from a tiny town in the Allegheney Mountains, whose tender and soulful side was savagely repressed…because it had to be. Because of what her life handed her.
I sat at my desk and remembered my first taste of Laphroaig, almost forty years ago, in Washington, DC, with my Mother sitting across from me at a Silver Spring restaurant. As it hit my tongue, I had the sudden realization that nothing would be exactly as it was, ever again. Once I tasted that – the Laphroaig 25 Year Old – the word “whiskey” took on a new meaning. The whiskeys I had tried up to then were mostly Bourbons, the ritual drink of my people, those sturdy Virginia mountaineers who usually drank their own still stuff for everyday and Jack Daniels when they were flush. I didn’t really like Bourbon that much. It was just okay. The Laphroaig was…smoky and sexy and seemed to fit into my budding, college-boy, snob-larva tastes like a key into a greased lock. It was poured for me by a rather obnoxious businessman type that my Mom knew from her work. He considered himself quite the Scotch connoisseur. I considered him a titanic dumb-ass but, at least on this one occasion, he was The Keeper of A Flame which has never gone out and I’m certain never will.
The bottles in the box, see, brought back my Mother and that moment and the covert eye-rolling she did when our host got up to hit the bathroom. My first taste of Laphroaig and my Mother’s subversive/snarky side on bold display…as teenage memories go, it’s as sweet and sneaky as I possess. Just the word, “Laphroaig”, yanks me back there to that Moment. And that weary Monday, that morning, in my office…somehow I knew.
My Mom had died at 2:54 a.m., Pacific Time. I had come home and told myself that I would just leave my cell phone on, even when charging, until Mom passed away. I went to bed Sunday night and reflexively turned it off. I checked Facebook when I got home from the office, Monday morning, and saw a post from my niece, saying that the world lost a great lady last night. I fumbled the phone out of my pocket and powered it up. I found three voice mails from my brother, “Hey, man, call me when you get this, okay?“…”Steve. Dave. Call me as soon as you get this.”…”Hey, call me back, willya?”
I got him quickly and he told me what had happened. I knew she didn’t have much time left when I went out the door of her bedroom that Saturday morning, pausing for one last wave goodbye, only to be stunned at a look on her face that I had never seen in my sixty-one years: tenderness and a vast relief that her oddball son was finally okay and likely to remain that way. I had no idea that she wouldn’t last another 48 hours after I left. I called my daughter next and shared our mutual pain and grief. Then, I went back into the house and numbly went about my usual day. The photos you see with this post were shot right then; a twenty minute period of therapy – a simple and familiar task undertaken as an anchor to the world. Reassurance that, yes, life does roll on and some safe and comfortable predictability is possible.
Monday evening, I sat and opened the bottles. The Laphroaig 10 Year Old was just as I remembered: coltish, a little wild, a lot smoky (of course, as is Laphroaig’s signature) and redolent of caramel, shaved wood, and intimations of fruit; touches of orange peel and pears on the front of palate. On the palate, it’s startlingly full and immediate, unlike many 10s I’ve tasted in recent years. It carries that briny sea-salt cast that marks all Islay Scotch and wears it proudly. In a world of “young whiskeys” (a relative and very subjective term), this is the Porsche, the Rolex, the Michael Jordan model. That’s not just nostalgia talking, either. I thought exactly the same thing in 1980…the first time I ever wrote about it. 94 Points
The Laphroaig 18 Year Old is a deep, smoky, soulful glassful of complexity and Scottish atmosphere. Salt air almost literally blows through every sip. Rich treacle and burnt sugar notes start the flavors, followed by that irresistible smoke – like sipping Scotch next to a campfire – and grace notes of rosemary and vanilla and sea salt and an almost floral finish. I first tasted this, also, with my Mom – who was NOT a drinker, by the way – at her house in Maryland, during an evening-long discussion/argument about what I was planning to do after college. I poured about three ounces into a jelly glass and it lasted almost three hours – still my personal record for nursing a drink. I savored every drop and did the same thirty-nine years later, sitting in my living room, awash in recollection. 96 Points
I had never tasted the Laphroaig Quarter Cask; never even heard of it, in fact; a shameful admission, I know, but…I’ve been busy. The ignorance is completely my loss. Quarter Cask is shockingly-fine whiskey. It harks back to the ancient practice of putting Scotch up for aging in small (roughly 15 gallons) barrels of shaved and sometimes toasted oak. This is initially barreled in used Bourbon barrels and transferred to the barriques for final aging, imbuing the finished whiskey with a powerful wood character. Of all the hundreds of wines, beers, and liquors I’ve tasted from barrels, this was by far the most dramatic, explicit, and expressive. Kids who never daydreamed in class while gnawing idly on their pencil won’t get this but the first and dominant impression of Quarter Cask is like chewing meditatively at a broken scrap of oak. Past that gateway lies beautiful brown butter, caramel, vanilla, and a spicy, peppery tang. The signature smoke balances perfectly with the massive wood character, locked in a frisson that hits the palate in a gasp-evoking explosion of sensations most of us have never really experienced from the same liquid. It is damnably smoooooth and easy to drink, a seductive, subversive concoction that depicts its origins about as well as any beverage I’ve ever tasted. It is to Scotland what Chateau Margaux is to France and every bit that stature. 99 Points
I did not get a bottle of the Laphroaig 25 but I’ve been fortunate enough to taste it so many times, now, that I feel absolutely comfortable writing about it here: Perfection. If there is a purely better whiskey on this planet, it’s escaped me. Take all the traits mentioned above, double them (at least), and make it impossibly smooth and as deep and soulful as Aretha Franklin in a warm milk bath and you have it. Huge caramel, lush vanilla, vivid and pungent smoke…and that spirit of the sea and the peat bogs and the stony, magnificence of Islay, all collide in a viscous, molten glassful of fire and soul and even a touch of funk. I’ve had maybe fifteen glasses of this in my life and, even with advancing age and my current distraction, I can remember almost every single one – the place, the setting, the company, and the sensations. 100 Points
Two things have to be mentioned here, as a vital aside to the reviews above:
The Burn: Drinking whiskey without The Burn would be as pointless as barreling a bunch of spring water. The Burn is an integral and, indeed, very appealing part of a fine whiskey. We’ve all heard or read about the Evils of That Demon Whiskey…and they’re all true. It IS dangerous. It WILL ruin your health, taken in too-large doses. It CAN easily kill you if you decide to take on a whole bottle in one of those anger/despair-fueled grudge matches. It may well be, as the fundamentalists have always claimed, an abomination in the Eyes of The Lord. (If so, He’s awfully liberal about how much of the stuff He allows His Flock to make.) But it’s the perfect beverage, in those terms. It carries its own pleasure, punishment, and penance right there in one bottle, one glass, one sip. The Burn hurts, in a small and perversely pleasurable way; you pay for your sins as you go. For those of us who have studied adult beverages for a long time, we approach whiskey the way we approach a rattlesnake: with respect and wariness. Surprisingly few wine/beer/spirits critics drink a lot. Most of us taste so much that actual drinking becomes like work; like the cobbler going home and making shoes all night. These three bottles from New York will last about six months at my house. Not kidding. Whiskey is a treat; not a diet. If you drink whiskey every day, you have what’s known as a “problem” and you should fix it, like now. And besides…why ruin the Sublime with the Quotidian?
Point Two is the relationship between Scotch and Bourbon, that quintessentially American invention. There is a grudging but persistent mutual admiration society that exists between Scotchmakers and Bourbon distillers. Scotch is almost universally aged in used Bourbon barrels. This practice goes back decades and even occasionally goes the other way: Bourbon barreled in used Scotch casks. Part of the character of great Scotch IS Bourbon and it does absolutely nothing to erase the fundamental, near-profound differences between the two styles. If you’re a Bourbon lover who dismisses Scotch, you cheat no one but yourself. Your Scotch is Out There somewhere. It’s gonna be a real shame if you never find it…and it may well be one of the bottles of Laphroaig mentioned here.
I don’t deal in nostalgia all that much. I’m not one of these sad geezers who puts on a Who album and heaves great sighs for the lost glories of my youth. I like a lot of music now, movies now, technology – Oh, my God! – NOW. I’d be so much freakin’ smarter if I hadn’t been born forty years before the explosion of computer technology! My Mother might very well have been President. She was a creature of her circumstances, both sublime and tragic. She married a man who was in no way her intellectual equal and was constantly enraged by the fact. She had enormous potential and realized none of it because she chose to raise me and my brother. She gave us the lessons that we received and carry with us still mostly by example. The one thing she told us, flat out, was this: “Never apologize for being smart and never be afraid to use it.” She was a woman of strong opinions and that has passed onto me in spades; you read them here, in The Pour Fool, every time you are kind enough to click on a post. And she valued fairness above all else. She harbored no prejudices – racial, social, or political – that I was ever able to detect. People were dealt with on a one-by-one basis. No pigeonholes, no categories. She seemed genuinely mystified about racial conflict. “Why the heck don’t people just mind their own business?” she’d sigh at some news report of street violence, “Those people are just trying to get along.”
It’s entirely possible that the good folks at Laphroaig will not appreciate my views on their great whiskeys being mingled with my own attempt at catharsis. For that, my lovely Scots brothers, I humbly apologize. In my admittedly Byzantine head, Laphroaig and Peggy Body are inextricably entwined. I happened to have Laphroaig in the glass at some of our crucial moments and so Peggy, a tee-totaller to the bone (except for a memorable night of bowling, when she, motivated by comradeship and quite a bit of Peer Pressure, imbibed several “strewgrivers” and Paid the next morning.) becomes a Sister of Islay, if only to me. Even if she had not just left this mortal plane, I would still be mentioning her in this review. Great whiskey, like all I’ve ever tasted from Laphroaig, is a wonderful preservative and steward of Memories. For me, at this moment, not quite grasping the vast tilt which has happened to my world and finding it difficult to think of anything that doesn’t resonate with her fierce life force, that box of bottles was like a gift from the universe, telling me “Go ahead, man. It’s okay to remember. It’s okay to sink in and let that vast sadness be your bed for a while.”
She lasted just a few hours after Mother’s Day was over. No one will ever know exactly how long. I will think of this every Mother’s Day for the rest of my life. I’ll undoubtedly raise a dram of Laphroaig in her memory. Her life’s work was being a Mother, above and beyond many other amazing accomplishments, and she did it beautifully, poetically, with spirit and heart and care. In Laphroaig, I find a whole company of Scots who seem to grasp the commonality of Soul that underlies and intertwines us all and somehow puts that in bottles…year after year, consistently and brilliantly. I would drink to my Mom with nothing less and, this day, in this place, I pour this straight to my heart. And hers.
To Submit a Beverage to The Pour Fool:
Send samples to: Steve Body/The Pour Fool 2887 152nd Avenue NE Redmond, WA 98052